We have talked a lot in the last 18 months or so about health issues in society. We have talked about viruses and how they spread. We have talked about masks and social distancing. We have talked about social isolation when one has a virus to keep it from spreading to others.
We have seen that one careless person can cause harm to a whole bunch of people, so it is true that while everyone has a right to their own beliefs and their own health; at the same time, we are intricately connected to one another, and we have the biological capacity to harm others if we do not take health precautions.
Masks and social distancing and social isolation and even handwashing and disinfecting are all ways of maintaining health boundaries, boundaries that will keep the corona virus from spreading.
This year has been all about the boundaries, the virus, contagion, and prevention.
But it is nothing new. We who know anything about group dynamics have seen all this play out not just in health care, but in terms of human behavior.
We know that the virus spreads because of human interaction and it is pretty hard not to have human interaction. We are pretty intimately connected to one another.
And when it comes to social relationships, group dynamics and the emotional health of any family, group, organization and church, we have all seen the damage someone with no boundaries can do. People who have emotional issues, or who are immature, or who have no moral compass can do immense harm.
They are like viruses, and the sad thing is that if they meet others who are immature or emotionally weak or unhealthy, (and we all have our moments of immaturity, and emotional unhealthiness)
…if they meet others who are immature or emotionally weak or unhealthy, they can spread the virus, in various ways:
Lies, half-truths, gossip, accusations, stories that differ as they tell them to different people, manipulations, anger, bullying, personal agendas, criticism, undermining, crying as a way to manipulate, poor me stories, speaking on behalf of another or others such as… ( a bunch of people in the church are saying…) (I hear it being said in the church…)
The healthier one is emotionally and the more mature one is…the easier it is to resist viruses…
To tell the truth there are those people, to use the vernacular…have pretty good bullshit detectors and can tell when someone is manipulating, and spreading stories and working the angles.
However, I have found in the church that sometimes we are too nice and listen to those who spread viruses, because we think listening is being kind. Sometimes we just have to set boundaries and say “No.” I will not listen to stories about others.
I will not listen to gossip.
There are all kinds of healthy boundaries that a person needs to maintain a healthy self and not get caught up in someone else’s crap.
Emotional boundaries around gossip about others, inappropriate topics or comments.
Material boundaries around possessions and how they are used. Some people take advantage of other’s possessiosn borrow them, don’t look after them, or lose them etc.
There are boundaries around time and energy. For instance, there are times that if I gave a half an hour to everyone who came to the door of the church looking for a handout, I wouldn’t have time to write sermons, prepare worship, do pastoral visitation, or other work of this church congregation.
There are mental boundaries which is the freedom to have one’s own beliefs and opinions, without having others trying to force you into their way of thinking, and without necessarily having to distance yourself from others because they think differently. Although to be fair sometimes we do have to distance ourselves from people who don’t respect boundaries.
And there are physical boundaries. Everyone has a different level of comfort about physical closeness and touch. There are boundaries about closeness, touching, sexual advances and contact, and boundaries regarding comments about how a person looks.
We all know of times when boundaries have been broken, and most of us may have painful memories when our boundaries have been violated. And if we are truly honest, we probably know of times when we were the transgressor, and said or did something which we now know was inappropriate. We broke a boundary.
And while I have talked about emotional boundaries of the self, groups have boundaries too. Sometimes they are written in rules, sometimes unwritten. The Presbyterian Church in Canada has a rule that churches and church buildings are to be safe places.
And one of the healthy functions of boundaries is to protect people from being hurt. Another function of boundaries is to protect the weaker members from being taken advantage of by the stronger members.
One of the paradoxical things about those people who are like viruses infecting others with falsehood, gossip, manipulations, selfishness and the like, who don’t respect boundaries, is that those self-same people who don’t respect boundaries love to erect boundaries. The boundaries they love to erect, keep them in control over others.
Which brings us to our gospel text today. It is about boundaries.
The story starts with some Scribes and Pharisees confronting Jesus about his disciples failing to follow the usual Jewish ritual of handwashing before eating.
My grandmother would have been incensed. She was a stickler over washing your hands before meals. Cleanliness is next to Godliness, and in my Grandmother’s book Cleanliness was Godliness.
But may I remind you that this was a ritual thing. They poured water over their hands but it was a symbolic gesture. They didn’t know a thing about germs or pathogens. Maybe 500 years ago the first people talked the theory of germs, but it really wasn’t until the late 1800’s that we began to understand germs and began to actually discover them and really combat them.
Even though smallpox vaccination was discovered by Edward Jenner in 1796, scientists didn’t really know how it worked, just that it worked.
So, when you look into the history of Israel and its rituals, you will find that in a nation that had been subjugated by other nations many times, and in threat of Egyptian Culture taking over, or Greek Culture taking over, or Roman culture taking over, that the Jews tried to keep their faith viable and real and concrete with holiness laws.
They created a culture that defined who was in and who was out… who deserved God’s favour and who didn’t. Who will be forgiven and who won’t be forgiven…
And they codified their laws into a fairly comprehensive system of laws and legal interpretations. There was not only scripture but tradition and interpretation.
Holiness was not completely about piety. It was more about separation. We are unique and different. We separate ourselves for God.
Handwashing was a symbolic thing suggesting that the Jews are separate and different and dedicated to God.
Interestingly enough in a world where water was much more precious and scarcer than today, it wasn’t easy to comply with handwashing. In Edmonton we just turn on the tap and we have all the water we need. Not so in ancient Israel. Therefore, the average person did not have the water nor the time to participate in ritual handwashing. And as Jesus will point out, it was merely a tradition, not a commandment in scripture.
The priests had to wash before entering the Tabernacle. See Genesis 30. That was the law. But it had become a tradition in Jewish culture especially for the Jewish religious leaders for ritual handwashing to be done at every meal.
And Jesus took them to task. Not just on this occasion. But the argument was basically this. They were setting up a boundary that made them look good and pious and holy and separate for God because they could do it, while most of the people couldn’t. So instead of helping people get to God, they were keeping people from God.
And then Jesus went on to say that they were big hypocrites and that their rules and boundaries were self-serving.
He goes on to talk about the commandment to honour parents. Jesus believed the commandment meant one was responsible to provide economic support to one’s ageing parents. Jesus however points out that the Pharisees set up a way to circumvent this obligation. They encouraged people to will their estates to the Temple and then to declare one’s estate Corban. Declaring one’s estate Corban meant the assets were frozen and couldn’t be used to help one’s parents. The parents got none of the money and the Temple got it all.
Supremely self-serving, so much so that Jesus that Jesus called it “making void the word of God.”
To him handwashing and other such things were just self-serving ways to set themselves up as better than others, and increased their power.
According to Jesus their hearts were not right towards God and neighbour.
Legalism is not that laws are not good or are not needed.
Legalism is not that boundaries are not needed
Legalism is not that there are no good commandments and that we shouldn’t write God’s law on our hearts.
Legalism is to take the law and to use it to justify self, to prop up one’s own power, and/or to use the law to put others down and keep them away.
Legalism is to take into one’s own hands the role of God and to determine who is in and out, who is good and bad, who should be forgiven or not, and who is pure and who is dirty.
Jesus doesn’t repudiate the law. He repudiates the misuse of the law. That is legalism. It is Religion for religion’s sake. It is the building of border walls keeping out the people God wants to minister to…
It is Religion as separation, not inclusion.
Jesus isn’t against all ritual, he is against selfishness, exclusivism, hypocrisy, self-righteousness and power building.
And yes. We have caricatured the Pharisees. We say they are bad people and we wouldn’t be like them. We think we are enlightened and done with legalism and power-building and self-righteousness.
Don’t kid yourselves. Self-righteousness, selfishness, power building, deciding who is in and out are still a part of humanity’s way of being.
If you talk to any person who grew up in a very religious background you will inevitably hear stories of crazy legalism, that today sounds funny.
My sister-in-law got in trouble many years ago for going to the movies to see the Disney movie “Herbie the Love Bug.” Because…because…movies were evil.
But Debi Thomas in her article “True religion.” On the Webzine “Journey with Jesus.” Points out that we often maintain legalism in our churches today. I quote;
Don’t we allow our cherished rituals to ossify, not noticing that our hearts, too, are becoming rigid and fixed, complacent and cold? As we engage in the business of church-hopping, churchgoing, and church-building, don’t we sometimes forget that true religion is inclusive and welcoming, open-handed and open-hearted? Don't we skirt around the basic truth that authentic religion is love of God and love of neighbor?
It doesn’t matter what specific forms our legalism takes. In some churches, it centers around liturgy or preaching styles. In others, it comes down to deifying one genre of music over another. In still others, it means policing the political affiliations and allegiances of parishioners. In some faith communities, the lines in the sand have to do with women clergy, or gay marriage, or racial justice, or economic equality. The guises vary, but in the end, legalism in any guise deadens us towards God and towards our neighbors. It freezes us in time, making us irrelevant to the generations that come after us. It makes us stingy and small-minded, cowardly and anxious. It strips away our joy and robs us of peace. It causes us, in Jesus’s chilling words, to “honor God with our lips” but to “worship him in vain.”
All of us have to do work with boundaries. Most of us have to struggle with setting healthy boundaries so that we have good relationships, talk in good ways about others, become a healing presence and a safe place.
And all of us have to do work in this society with taking down the boundaries that are unhealthy that privilege males, or heterosexuals, or white people, or rich
people or even Christian people.
I said before that those who don’t respect boundaries are often the ones who set up boundaries of privilege and power, that keep out the ones they don’t want, and increase their own power and control.
That is what Jesus criticized in the Pharisees.
But in another strange paradox, the one who are emotionally mature, who have healthy boundaries, are the ones who at work dismantling the boundaries of injustice, inequality, prejudice, class, and hate.
I recently watched the PBS special which was a concert special of the music from the musical “Wicked.”
I was fascinated by the story which is a retelling of the story of the Wicked Witch of the West and the Good Witch Glinda.
In the musical “Wicked” we learn that Elphaba who becomes known as the Wicked Witch of the West, was not really that wicked. She and Galinda, later known as Glinda the good witch, are college roommates, who hate each other at first but become fast friends.
Elphaba is born with green skin and is subject to prejudice and lies and false stories and finger pointing.
Elphaba is the one who sees that the Wizard is a fraud and is evil, and is subjugating animals, and is unjust; and she decides to oppose his evil, and is committed to justice and equality.
But because she opposes the Wizard who holds the power, she is falsely accused and branded the Wicked Witch.
At the end of the first act where Elphaba has decided to fight for justice and against evil, and she is determined to defend the animals of Oz, even though she is being pursued by the Wizard’s Guards.
She finds a broom and enchants it so it can levitate and she sings what is probably the defining song in the musical “Wicked,”… “Defying Gravity.”
And she rises into the air to escape the guards.
But Defying Gravity is not really about her flying and defying physical gravity.
It is about her taking on the unjust system and defying the gravity of the legalism, the gravity of unjust power, the power and privilege of the wizard and his cronies.
It is defying the boundaries that keep ordinary people from freedom and equality and abundant life.
Here are some of the words from Defying Gravity
Something has changed within me
Something is not the same
I'm through with playing by the rules
Of someone else's game
Too late for second-guessing
Too late to go back to sleep
It's time to trust my instincts
Close my eyes and leap!
It's time to try defying gravity
I think I'll try defying gravity
And you can't pull me down
And that is what people with healthy boundaries do. They defy the gravity of unjust boundaries.
That is what Jesus did.
He defied gravity. He walked on water. He ascended to the heavens, not for his own glory, but to bring ordinary people like you and me into the very presence of God and love… To create a world of equality, safety, harmony and love.
It’s time to try defying gravity. Amen.